,  12 March 2013

Historians use sources to study the past. Their work in heritage sites may overlap with that of researchers.

An historian's work may overlap with the work of researchers, archivists and archaeologists.
An historian's work may overlap with the work of researchers, archivists and archaeologists.

What is the work like?


Historians study the past. The subject of history is so vast that historians specialise. This could be in:

  • a time period - such as pre-history, the Middle Ages or the sixties
  • an aspect of history - such as industry or sport
  • an area or place - such as Europe, London or the Far East
  • an organisation - a company, charity or public body.

Other specialist areas of history include:

  • social
  • oral
  • scientific or medical
  • military
  • environmental
  • family history.

Much of what historians do is research. Their work, therefore, may overlap with the work of researchers. It may also share aspects with archivists and archaeologists.

Using sources

Historians look into the past by identifying and using sources, which can include:

  • documents
  • maps
  • official records
  • photographs
  • other objects from the past
  • verbal accounts (oral history).

They then analyse what they find. Part of their work may be interpreting the history – either for other experts or for the public.

Historians can be employed by:

Working styles

Historians may work alone or as part of a team. The team may include other historians or specialists such as archaeologists, scientists, conservators.

Some historians work freelance. They usually work on a range of projects within their speciality. For example they may:

  • help people research their family history
  • use their knowledge of specialist archives and collections to advise people where to look
  • undertake specific projects for organisations or individuals
  • publish their finding as books or on websites.

Historians may work indoors or out, depending on what they are studying. Some time is spent indoors writing up their findings.

Most historians have a degree and many have a Masters or PhD as well.

The work may involve travel to heritage sites in the UK or overseas. You may meet with other international experts in your field at meetings or conferences.

You may make presentations and give lectures on your research. If you are a university researcher, teaching students may be part of your work.

How do I become a historian?

You need to be very interested in history. Your fascination is likely to lead you to a specialist area of interest. You will also need:

  • an enquiring mind
  • good research skills
  • determination
  • good writing skills
  • the ability to write and talk enthusiastically about your subject, often to non-specialists
  • a desire to keep learning.

Qualifications and training

To become a historian, you need to study history. Most historians have a degree and many have a Masters or PhD as well. Usually the first degree is in history, but it may be another subject which interests you. Your Masters would then be in aspect of history or heritage.

There is a huge range of history degrees available at universities across the UK. Many of them combine history with other subjects, such as:

  • politics
  • philosophy
  • languages (including ancient languages)
  • archaeology
  • religious studies
  • sociology.

Some degrees allow you to study more than two subjects.

It is very important to look carefully at the course content to help you decide which course will be right for you. Details of degrees are available on the UCAS website and postgraduate courses on UKPASS.

Like much heritage work, this is a very competitive area to get into so it is essential to get as much experience as possible. Either paid or voluntary work will help you to build up your knowledge and your skills. Most museums and heritage sites welcome volunteers (although there can be competition for these opportunities as well).

With a degree and some experience, you could become a trainee in a museum or heritage organisation. Once you have your PhD you can apply for post-doctoral posts, which may combine research with teaching.

Depending on your interest and how you want to develop your career, you could move into another aspect of heritage work. You could become a curator, for example. It is also possible to move into museum or heritage management.

What can I earn?

As a trainee you could earn around £14,000. A university research historian could earn around £32,000.

A head of department in a major museum could earn £35,000 to £45,000. Deputy directors and directors can earn £50,000 or more, with directors of national museums earning over £150,000.

Also of interest

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